Reading 'A Song' by Goethe and other poems

Reading 'A Song' by Goethe and other poems
Eight poems by London-based poet, editor and translator Astrid Alben under World Poetry/Prose Portfolio, curated by Sudeep Sen 

Reading ‘A Song’ by Goethe

The high-speed train clears Dover into the tunnel cutting 
through sediments laid down some hundred million years ago. 
It’s Gobi desert dark when the overhead lights pop on. I draw 
in closer to the window. As I draw in closer my eyes and nose 
touch the point of condensation. I will only ever know myself 
as an image sliding back and forth between degrees of being 
there. Not introspection but retrospection and that is why 
Goethe, two months before he died, visited the mountain hut 
at Ilmenau on whose walls he’d carved some fifty, yes fifty 
years before that in all trees hardly a breath stirs. This was in 
1832, the year in which the first hydrographical survey of the 
channel was conducted. Nothing stirs here. As the train 
pummels through the darkness my reflection swings limpidly 
in and out of focus. At some hundred and fifty feet below the 
seabed I pass right underneath my life with the earth out of 
reach above me. I have slipped off the radar of existence. I am 
without my end knowing where to find me. Elsewhere is radio 
static, mechanical toys and the oblivion of the tides. 
Elsewhere, unanswered letters uproot cathedrals. And wait, 
wrote Goethe, you too shall rest before long.


It’s been eighteen months since I last received a letter.
There is the usual post from British Telecom, 
a Liberty Special Offer, a flyer from Four Faces Take Away. 
Today, a postcard from Cape Town, addressed to Faith. 
‘Dear Faith’ it starts and she, meanwhile, 
shrinking on her basement vine, cracks a smile. The TV drone 
vibrating up the wall sounds like a planet turning in its grave.

Faith has a phobia of stairs. Going up or going down? and then, 
It’s sunny out, spring is in the air. 
Oh dear she says what’s not fair? I slowly peel each finger 
from the Kouga Sugarbush photo-bombing 
the humpbacked Table Mountain. It’s basking in the sun. 
It’s been eighteen months since a letter came, since someone 
revived my name in ink and asked ‘How are you? I’m doing fine.’

Conversation on Art 

On The Japanese Bridge by Monet I say 
the painter went blind in old age followed a puzzled silence

by a why? In front of Whistlejacket strange to paint a horse 
just be glad it’s not a chicken why? 

But in front of a pyramid by Paul Klee 
that line is a dot that went for a walk

through the prehistory of you and me visible yet not two 
but three I got that straight away and so did he.

La Morte Amoureuse

Saito Ryokan said elegance is frigid and he was right elegance
is a ballerina sinking in plié. Then Romeo killed whoever it was

killed Mercutio. Sarah Lamb is better as a corpse than in her pas de
deux her body a second hand rootless rounds the clock. What did 

this pair of star-crossed lovers plan to do— sleep through death 
pirouette their way to Veracruz in Mexico? Someone in the gods 

coughs through Juliet’s dying shifts. Poet looks up. Looks down
and to the left. The row to the left is looking at me. 

An Old Song

Elbows brushing in the street, a commuter’s clammy breath 
diluting mine, a weary neck a black boy’s ghastly 

smile I’m waiting for a bus like I’m waiting for a stranger to 
tell me hurry up please or you’ll die. It’s impossible 

to say if the human race is made up of tailor’s dummies 
or invincible Titans who despite turmoil happiness and rage 

—for now this poem has to do— act out an old song of an 
angry mountain rattling in a cage.

Emily Dickens’ Disease

Poet with loneliness too daily to relate is taken off to a layby 
planet for his recovery where he signs up with the Amateur 

Resistance Society —A.R.S. for short — who instructs their 
patients how to bloom through the Milky Way. 

Poet fades from sight like a small lit up raft on an ocean 
of stars so weightless and vast I’m left without you Poet 

with manoeuvres in goodbye Poet 
with how come nothing means without you nothing Poet.

The Radio Mast

How come sea turtles travel alone? Like satellites they have faithfully
shouldered their own frequency for one hundred million years. 

Today is Sunday. Today is the boy I never got to be. He stands before 
the radio mast, ‘No!’ he booms pushes out his ribs like a woofer, 

‘Look!’ ‘No!’ Me!’ His face his hands his toes cling to the edge of dawn, 
point south of the border, west of the sun. In GMT a night watchman 

tunes into his radio to listen to the WHHOOOOOOO of the ocean 
and believes a sea turtle has just checked into the Galaxy Hotel.

A Short Waiting Game

The phone rings it rings and rings it rings.
Poet advances to window stops turns paces the room 

paces and paces Poet paces. Night lights a cigarette. 
Poet hears indistinct mumbling doesn’t know who’s 

talking renews pacing fumbles a cigarette 
Ah! Agent Orange underbreath two and a half paces ahead 

nono I hush-hushed back herbicide sit on tea with lemon 
on we with lemon on lemon bitter bitter lemon. 

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